Names are now given to some heat waves. That could save lives.

Some heat waves have names now. That could save lives.

We talk about heat waves in a weird way.

Natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires are (rightly) accompanied by warnings of their danger. They bring a visible, elemental fury that’s hard to ignore. Heat, on the other hand, is invisible and insidious. It’s visible on the skin as heat, radiating off concrete and asphalt, but it is invisible to us. That makes heat waves easy to dismiss as quirky summer weather.

“Heat is an interesting hazard because it can kind of creep up on you,” said Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “It tends to affect millions of people at a time, and a lot of people don’t realize the danger.”

But heat is the deadliest weather phenomenon in a typical year in the United States, killing an average of 158 people annually in the 30 years from 1992 to 2021, and climate change is only going to make heat waves more common. Already, we can categorize and name tornadoes. Hurricanes get both. These ideas could be extended to help with heat waves.

“Naming hurricanes has been really effective,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), which studies climate resiliency. McLeod described hurricane-prone areas as having “a culture for preparedness and prevention,” which allows residents to be better equipped to deal with storms of different intensity. For example, residents who choose to stay home during a stronger storm might put up their windows or store water for a few days. McLeod stated that heat waves require a branding strategy, an identity.

To figure out how that branding might work, scientists at Arsht-Rock are running pilot projects in six cities — Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and Kansas City in the United States, along with Seville, Spain, and Athens, Greece — to test-drive a heat wave categorization system they developed. In July, Seville became the first city in the world to give a heat wave a name: Zoe. Spanish authorities ranked the heat wave at Category 3, indicating the highest level of risk.

Categorizing heat waves isn’t easy. It’s not easy to categorize heat waves. “You can have two cities with almost identical weather, and you’ll still need two different categories.”

New York City and Philadelphia, for example, are close enough to each other that they tend to experience similar weather conditions on most days, but local conditions make a difference to how the residents of each city experience heat. That means heat waves can’t simply be categorized by temperature.

The Heat Index is a measure that incorporates relative humidity and air temperature. It gives an indication of the heat’s actual feeling, with a chart that shows the effects heat has on the body. But while the heat index provides a better understanding of how heat might feel, it’s essentially an enhancement of the temperatures we already know. It is easy to overlook or underestimate.

Kalkstein and his colleagues instead developed a system that looks at historical weather and mortality data from past heat waves to determine what combination of weather conditions — heat, humidity, overnight temperatures, cloud cover, and more — leads to the most excess deaths in a particular region. They then developed an algorithm to compare the heat waves with historical data and determine their likelihood of producing excess deaths. Then they issue a classification based upon expected mortality. These categories include recommendations on steps that cities and citizens can take to protect themselves from heat.

This is a notably different approach from most weather warning systems. Most warnings issued by meteorological agencies are based solely on the weather. Hurricanes, for example, are solely classified according to wind speed.

” We propose a method that combines weather and health,” McLeod said. McLeod stated that meteorological agencies are not health agencies, so there will be discomfort. That’s a big change.”

The idea is already getting some pushback. In July, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN agency that coordinates weather data and planning across the world, released a statement saying it had no plans to name heat waves.

” “What is known about tropical cyclones may not be applicable to heatwaves.” The agency stated. “Caution should be exercised when comparing or applying lessons or protocols from one hazard type to another, due to the important differences in the physical nature and impacts of storms and heatwaves.”

A 2017 study showed that naming winter storms — as the Weather Channel started doing in the US in the 2010s despite pushback from the National Weather Service — didn’t necessarily raise awareness of the storms, though that study’s sample size was limited to a few hundred college students. But pushing ahead with names and categories risks undermining the WMO and country-level agencies like the National Weather Service, according to Kristie Ebi, founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The WMO oversees the system of naming and categorizing hurricanes. This allows for international coordination. Ebi stated that a system such as Arsht-Rock’s is being developed in collaboration with national meteorological offices, but not the WMO. This raises concerns about who people should listen too when there’s extreme weather. Ebi asked, “Aren’t we supposed to listen the National Weather Service to cities doing something else?”

There is also the possibility that naming heat waves could be counterproductive to every climate catastrophe we will experience. We already name fires and hurricanes, Marlon pointed out, and giving names to every natural disaster could create a confusing jumble of names that risk being blown out of proportion by an attention-hungry media.

For the climatologists at Arsht-Rock, the best-case scenario is to avoid that problem by simply having organizations like the WMO adopt their system. The idea is that their pilot program would collect evidence about whether the names and categories do or do not work. McLeod stated that the category system is more important than any other communication tool. It will allow people to understand where they are in danger, and how they can take precautions.

“Institutions change slowly,” said McLeod. McLeod stated that institutions change slowly. But if naming does prove to be effective and organizations like the WMO still decide not to adopt them, McLeod said, they’ll continue working with whatever governments do want to use the system — exactly what Ebi and the WMO are afraid of.

Whatever happens, it’s clear we need to change how we talk about heat waves. “I think there’s lots of creative ways to start raising awareness,” Ebi said. “We have to try to get people to really understand those risks. Nobody needs to die in a heat wave.”

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